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London, United Kingdom
I am an engineering academic at University College London where I work on the sustainability of urban water systems. I am interested in the role of engineers and technology in sustainable cities.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Fear and Risk Assessment in Lahore

On 20th January terrorists attacked Bacha Khan University in Kyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Pakistan, killing 22 people. On 28th January I gave an opening address at the Climate Change and Sustainable Development Conference at Lahore College for Women University. Some people say I'm brave. If bravery means doing things that scare you, then I agree with them. This was my sixth visit to Pakistan since 1997. This is the first time I've felt scared.

Most mornings, I listen to the Today programme on Radio 4 as I wander sleepily around my flat getting ready for the day. On 20th January I sat down at the kitchen table and listened to the 8 o'clock news from Charsadda. The attack was still going on. 'A university. Bastards,' was my first thought, closely followed by, 'I don't want to go'.

I sent a carefully worded email to the trip sponsors at the British Council to ask if their assessment of risk in Lahore had changed. In a worried haze I got my things together, jumped on my bicycle and headed to work.

Cycling through Islington I kept thinking 'I don't want to go'. At an intersection in Kings Cross my inner hardass woke up. 'Stop being a drama queen', she reminded me. 'Think this through'. By Bloomsbury I'd realised the irony of worrying about being shot by the Taliban while cycling through central London. I also remembered getting to work via Tavistock Square on 7 July 2005.

I live with risk every day, why is this any different?

In the office I talked through my dilemma with a colleague who went to Sierra Leone as the Ebola outbreak was gathering momentum in 2014. Charsadda is a long way from Lahore, I told her. This attack was the Taliban, old skool bad guys. Of all the terrorists in the world, the Pakistani military probably has better intelligence on them than any government does on any of these creeps. They had closed schools in the PKP region because they knew something was up, they just didn't know quite what. If they knew about a specific risk to Lahore, they'd tell the university, and they'd cancel the trip. Right?

Later that day we met with another colleague who has worked a lot in Pakistan. She agreed. Lahore is a long way from Charsadda. No worries.

But I was worried. A bit. The British Council had cancelled a planned visit in 2014 when Imran Khan and friends were marching from Lahore to Islambad, but they didn't seem overly concerned this time. I was doubly thorough in filling in my own risk assessment, reading all the details of the latest Foreign and Commonwealth Office fact sheet with its morbid listing of bombings and deaths in far flung places. The risk was manageable. The trip worth taking. Off I went.

The conference started on Thursday with minor, but not unusual delay. There had been false rumours in the media that the university was closed due to the security threat. The university was open, but the Vice-Chancellor didn't make it to the conference opening because she was stuck in security meetings. The British Council representative was late and didn't stay for lunch, nominally because of security precautions.

I gave my talk about the interactions between Sustainable Development Goals and what this could mean for Pakistani climate change policy. The conference went on as planned. We ate samosas and talked about the prospects for coal-fired power in response to the appalling energy crisis. I looked for places to hide.

By the time my jetlag woke me at 2am the shadowy extremists were launching an attack on my mind once more. Lying in bed in a five star hotel I remembered stories from the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Stories of people tweeting from their hotel rooms. I would not be tweeting. I would be hiding the wardrobe, saving my phone battery. I calculated whether I would have time to make the room up to look like no-one was there. If I hid under my black coat would that make it harder for them to find me?

Checking your phone is a poor cure for sleeplessness, but I needed some sort of contact with the world outside my suicide bombing brain. Mashallah, a friend had SMSd, chasing up a long promised drink. I let him in on my insomania and talked myself back down to a calmer assessment of the risk. It was the middle of the night and I had finally let someone know I was scared.

Lahore is a beautiful city. Kites circle and hunt in the sky. I have watched them darting and drifting for hours. A cup of Kashmiri chai feels like a big hug from my mum with a fresh bath towel on a cold night. If I could choose one style of womens' fashion to take over the world, it would be the colourful Pakistani shalwar kameez. Mutton karahi with fresh roti is on the shortlist of dishes for my last supper.  I learn a lot everytime I come to work here, and my colleagues seem to like me being around. But things are difficult.

Pakistan has plenty of problems, and the one that gets all the press is security. Security is a problem not just for the risk it poses to life and stability, but because fear gets in the way of everything else. University VCs caught in meetings about security threats are not leading their staff and students to the higher learning needed to create a stable economy, clean environment and equitable society in Pakistan. Universities and schools spend hundreds of thousands of dollars (US) on razor wire and armed guards, instead of laboratories and libraries. Academics stuck in London afraid of the Taliban can't share knowledge and experience that might help us all learn how to live together in this complex world.

I am more likely to die on my bicycle on my way to work in London than in a terror attack in Lahore. Sometimes I get scared - of being run over by a lorry at an intersection and of being shot in a hotel bed by the Taliban. Fear can keep us safe. It makes us take precautions. I wear a helmet and a hi-vis jacket on my bike, and I check the FCO advice before travelling. Fear can also paralyse. It helps to talk things through, but the trick is not to give way to hysteria.

In a world that seems more fearful than ever it is impossible for the likes of me to know the difference between the real risk of terror and unhelpful panic. My own hysterics seem validated by ever more intensive and expensive 'security' measures, and yet my personal risk assessments rely on them to keep me 'safe'. I want more cycling lanes in London and I want the Taliban to be defeated. In the mean time, I rely on my own fear and calculations to keep myself safe.

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